Wilmington police officer orders Uber driver to stop filming traffic stop, prompts internal investigation

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Can you shoot video of your interactions with police? Sergeant Kenneth Becker, of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Police Department, asked Uber driver Jesse Bright to turn off his camera, threatening, 'turn if off or I'm going to take you to jail.' That prompted an internal investigation. (Courtesy of Jesse Bright)
Can you shoot video of your interactions with police? Sergeant Kenneth Becker, of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Police Department, asked Uber driver Jesse Bright to turn off his camera, threatening, ‘turn if off or I’m going to take you to jail.’ That prompted an internal investigation. (Courtesy of Jesse Bright)

WILMINGTON, North Carolina — At least two police officers recently claimed it was illegal to take video of  police officers. Those claims appear to have been misleading, resulting in an internal investigation at the Wilmington Police Department.

Follow up: Wednesday, March 8, 12:50 p.m.:  Wilmington chief, New Hanover County sheriff say filming police is legal after incident with Uber driver

It started with a traffic stop.

Jesse Bright, a Wilmington attorney, was pulled over late Sunday afternoon, Feb. 26, by the Wilmington Police Department and at least one deputy from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. Bright, who is also an Uber driver, was taking a fare on a round trip to an address near 10th and Martin streets.

“It’s definitely a rough neighborhood, I’m aware,” Bright said. “But it’s a fare, I can’t tell a fare where not to go.”

Shortly after starting his return trip, Bright said he was pulled over near the corner of Dawson Street and 16th Street.

“It was almost instantly after I pulled onto Dawson,” Bright said. “Lights came on, I pulled into the parking lot of the pawn shop, and cops pulled all around me.”

In the Pawn South parking lot, Bright was informed by police that his fare was being arrested. He began filming the incident, but was told to stop filming by Sgt. Kenneth Becker, who can be heard on the video saying “Hey, bud, turn that off, OK?”

Becker, a 20-year veteran of the force, then came around to Bright’s driver side window and told him, “turn it off or I’m going to take you to jail.”

Bright continued filming; about two minutes after being told to stop filming by Sgt. Becker, Bright asked an unidentified deputy of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office “sir, can you tell me what this new law is, that I’m not allowed to record?”

The officer told Bright, “they just recently passed it.”

An unidentified officer of the New Hanover County Sheriff's Department told Uber driver Jesse Bright that a law banning the filming of police officers had just recently been passed. A spokesman for the Sheriff's office said he was not aware of any such law. (Screenshot/photo courtesy of Jesse Bright)
An unidentified officer of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department told Uber driver Jesse Bright that a law banning the filming of police officers had just recently been passed. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s office said he was not aware of any such law. (Screenshot/photo courtesy of Jesse Bright)

After a K-9 unit searched Bright’s vehicle, both Bright and his passenger were released; no citations were issued.

Wilmington Officer Joseph St. Pierre explained to Bright that he had been stopped because his car had “a lot of history on it” and because he had been driving in a high-crime and high-drug area. Bright told Officer St. Pierre that he understood the stop, and that his frustration was limited to Becker’s attempt to discourage him from filming.

On Monday, Feb. 27, Bright said he attempted to contact Sgt. Becker. “Wilmington PD gave me his number,” Bright said. “But once he realized who I was, he hung up on me.”

After leaving several messages without reply, Bright contacted Port City Daily on Thursday, March 2. Port City Daily shared Bright’s video recordings with both the Wilmington Police Department and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.

Cathryn Lindsay, Wilmington Police spokeswoman, said the department has no policy against filming police officers in public and that Bright’s video had been shared with Chief Ralph Evangelous and other administrative officials.

Bright said an officer from the Professional Standards Division contacted him on the evening of Friday, March 3. Bright said, “the conversation was very brief, the IA officer assured me I had not broken any laws.”

Lindsay later confirmed the department was taking action, saying, “the video is being investigated by the Professional Standards Division,” the internal affairs office of the police department. At the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, public information officer Lt. Jerry Brewer confirmed an officer from the agency had been present at the stop but declined to identify the officer involved.

Brewer said no investigation was currently underway at his department and that the incident fell under Wilmington’s jurisdiction. Brewer did agree to view the complete video to review if any sheriff’s office personnel had misrepresented the law or violated protocol.

There have been several federal court cases concerning the filming of police officers in public; most have upheld the right to do so, including the most recent, a ruling in the United States Court of Appeals’ Fifth District.

The Feb. 16 ruling on Turner Vs. Driver concluded, in part: “We agree with every circuit that has ruled on this question: Each has concluded that the First Amendment protects the right to record the police. As the First Circuit explained, “[t]he filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within [basic First Amendment] principles.”

The same ruling also argued, however, that there were limits to the right to film police. For example, doing so in such a way that would interfere with police work. Both Lindsay and Brewer affirmed that, according to their respective agencies, that was not the case with Bright and Becker.

Bright said he has not ruled out taking his video to national news outlets, adding that he is not looking to be a “provocateur,” only to educate people on the best practices of dealing with law enforcement.

“I’m an attorney, I tell all my clients to film their interactions with the police. The police have protocol that they have to follow, and most of them do a good job of it. But when they don’t, you need a record,” Bright said. “Too often body-cam or dash cameras have had some kind of malfunction or the footage has been misplaced by the time they are subpoenaed.”

Bright added, “We have rights for a reason. The police are paid to serve the citizens and defend their rights, not to take their rights away.”

Port City Daily will continue to follow this story, including the outcome of any investigations connected to it.

Watch for yourself: Jessie Bright’s video of the traffic stop, below. Sgt. Becker threatens to take Bright to jail at the :31 second mark. At 2:04, a member of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office appears to confirm the passage of a law banning filming, saying “they just passed it.” This is the same video sent to Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover Sheriff’s Office by Port City Daily.